Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In the Garden of Spirituality – Anthony de Mello


“We are not on earth to guard a museum,
but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

– Pope John XXIII

The Wild Reed’s series of reflections on religion and spirituality continues with an excerpt from The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello.

Anthony "Tony" de Mello (1931–1987) was an Indian Jesuit priest, psychotherapist, spiritual teacher, writer and public speaker. In the excerpt below, he reminds us that holiness is not an achievement, but rather a grace; a grace called awareness.


Sooner or later there arises in every human heart the desire for holiness, spirituality, God, call it what you will. One hears mystics speak of a divinity all around them that is within our grasp, that would make our lives meaningful and beautiful and rich, if we could only discover it. People have some sort of a vague idea as to what this thing is and they read books and consult gurus, in the attempt to find out what it is that they must do to gain this elusive thing called Holiness or Spirituality. They pick methods, techniques, spiritual exercises, formulas; then after years of fruitless striving they become discouraged and confused and wonder what went wrong. Mostly they blame themselves. If they had been more fervent or more generous, they might have made it. But made what? They have no clear idea as to what exactly this holiness that they seek is, but they certainly know that their lives are still in a mess, they still become anxious and insecure and fearful, resentful and unforgiving, grasping and ambitious and manipulative of people. So once again they throw themselves with renewed vigor into the effort and labor that they think they need to attain their goal.

They never stopped to consider this simple fact: Their efforts are going to get them nowhere. Their efforts will only make things worse, as things become worse when you use fire to put out fire. Effort does not lead to growth; effort, whatever the form it may take, whether it be will-power or habit or a technique or a spiritual exercise, does not lead to change. At best it leads to repression and a covering over of the root disease.

Effort may change the behavior but it does not change the person. Just think what kind of a mentality it betrays when we ask, "What must I do to get holiness?" Isn't it like asking, How much money must I spend to buy something? What sacrifice must I make? What discipline must I undertake? What meditation must I practice in order to get it? Think of a person who wants to win the love of another and attempts to improve his/her appearance or build his/her body or change his/her behavior and practice techniques to charm the other person.

You truly win the love of others not by the practice of techniques but by being a certain kind of person. And that is never achieved through effort and techniques. And so it is with Spirituality and Holiness. Not what you do is what brings it to you. This is not a commodity that one can buy or a prize that one can win. What matters is what you are, what you become.

Holiness is not an achievement, it is a Grace. A Grace called Awareness, a grace called Looking, Observing, Understanding. If you would only switch on the light of awareness and observe yourself and everything around you throughout the day, if you would see yourself reflected in the mirror of awareness the way you see your face reflected in a looking glass, that is accurately, clearly, exactly as it is without the slightest distortion or addition, and if you observed this reflection without any judgment or condemnation, you would experience all sorts of marvelous changes coming about in you. Only you will not be in control of these changes, or be able to plan them in advance, or decide how and when they are to take place. It is this nonjudgmental awareness alone that heals and changes and makes one grow. But in its own way and at its own time.

What specifically are you to be aware of? Your reactions and your relationships. Each time you are in the presence of a person, any person, or with Nature or with any particular situation, you have all sorts of reactions, positive and negative. Study those reactions, observe what exactly they are and where they come from, without any sermonizing or guilt or even any desire, much less effort to change them. That is all that one needs for holiness to arise.

But isn't awareness itself an effort? Not if you have tasted it even once. For then you will understand that awareness is a delight, the delight of a little child moving out in wonder to discover the world. For even when awareness uncovers unpleasant things in you, it always brings liberation and joy. Then you will know that the unaware life if not worth living, it is too full of darkness and pain.

If at first there is a sluggishness in practicing awareness, don't force yourself. That would be an effort again. Just be aware of your sluggishness without any judgment or condemnation. You will then understand that awareness involves as much effort as a lover makes to the beloved . . . or a mountaineer to get to the top of his/her beloved mountain; so much energy expended, so much hardship even, but it isn't effort, it's fum! In other words, awareness is an effortless activity.

Will awareness bring you the holiness you so desire? Yes and no. The fact is you will never know. For true holiness, the type that is not achieved through techniques and efforts and repression, true holiness is completely unselfconscious. You wouldn't have the slightest awareness of its existence in you. Besides you will not care, for even the ambition to be holy will have dropped as you live from moment to moment a life made full and happy and transparent through awareness. It is enough to be watchful and awake.

– Anthony de Mello
Excerpted from The Way to Love:
The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello

pp. 191-196

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Sufism: A Call to Awaken
The Source is Within You
The Soul Within the Soul
Clarity, Hope and Courage
"Joined at the Heart": Robert Thompson on Christianity and Sufism
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.

1 comment:

Brent Vanderlinden said...

Thanks for this reflection by Anthony de Mello, Michael! He has always been one of my favorites! Too bad the church doesn't recognize his true saintliness.